I was born and raised in St. Lucia, a tiny island in the West-Indies, and though it may be viewed as just a dot on the world map, I wouldn’t trade my small island upbringing for anything in the world. At 16 degrees north of the equator, St. Lucia wears a fertile skin of dark rich volcanic earth covered in lush vegetation, and rises pristine out of the blue waters of the Caribbean Sea and the Atlantic Ocean to fold itself into fecund hills and majestic mountains, deep valleys and serpentine rivers all fed by cool tropical rains.
The island brims with sensuality and life. The waves’ constant caress carves sandy beaches out of the shoreline and keeps the island and its inhabitants isolated from the rest of the world. As a result, St. Lucians have development a rich and unique culture. The combination of St. Lucia’s impeccable natural beauty and its deep culture that inspire me as a writer. I grew up reading books that took me on journeys and adventures all around the world, creating a longing for foreign places, peoples and languages, but it is St. Lucia that grounds me as a writer.
I had no idea I wanted to be a writer until my late teens, but I think the seed was planted long ago when I attended Methodist primary school and learned that Derek Walcott, had attended my school. By secondary school, I was introducing myself to my classmates saying, “My name is Natalie and I’m fascinated by Greek Mythology.” My good friend Kama and I still laugh about it to this day. I then sat in Mrs. Edwards’ class at St. Joseph’s Convent and soaked up all she had to say about literature. It wasn’t until then that I began to think that I too could someday write great stories. The woman displayed a passion for Caribbean Literature that inspired me to want to read more, to dream that I could someday create and share my very own stories. From there I attended the Sir Arthur Lewis Community College where I studied under Kendel Hippolyte and his wife Jane King Hippolyte, two of St. Lucia’s most noteworthy poets. My time with them was what truly convinced me that writing was what I wanted to do with my life. I remember having a serious conversation about it with Kendel. He told me that it wouldn’t be easy, but well worth it if I was prepared to work hard at my craft, and I am forever thankful for his guidance. Now, as I work on my first novel, I can truly appreciate how inspiring St. Lucia is for a writer.
I followed the news of Tomas from my Los Angeles apartment remaining glued to my computer. Countless images and stories kept appearing on facebook and I couldn’t pull myself away. That same tropical rain that nourishes all life on the island had become torrential, causing landslides and mudslides, damaging roads and infrastructure, washing away homes, livestock and vehicles.
The southernmost districts of Vieux Fort and Soufriere, home to Hewanorra International Airport, the famous Pitons and the world’s only drive in volcano, were most heavily impacted by the strong winds and heavy rainfall. I know Soufriere and Vieux Fort, but couldn’t recognize them once Tomas had left them disfigured, hardly recognizable. I cried.
Soufriere endured the brunt of Tomas’ rage, getting cut off from the rest of the island as chunks of the major artery of roadway circumventing the island were washed away. The town could only be reached via boat following the storm and residents were trapped without fresh water or electricity as authorities struggled to address the threat of waterborne diseases. Locals were advised not to consume meat off dead cattle and to boil all drinking water. The John Compton Dam was also severely damaged and roads leading to the dam were impassable, cutting off access to any and all water supply. In the end, there were fourteen confirmed deaths, including one American whose vehicle ran off a road and fell down a precipice. The Prime Minister, Stephenson King, described the island as a “war zone” and damages are estimated to be in the amount of $100 million US dollars after an air survey was conducted.
I followed all this online and was lucky enough to talk intermittently to my mother. She stays in the north of the island and managed to remain safe throughout it all. Landlines were down but we could still reach each other via her cell phone until the battery died. The family home suffered minimal damage due to flooding, but my aunt wasn’t so lucky, she lost part of her roof to the strong winds.
I was still very affected by all the information coming out of the island when I returned to campus the following week but was somehow unaware that I was carrying the weight of it around with me. I felt helpless, hopeless, and something of a traitor for not having shared the experience with my people and was deeply saddened by the idea of not being able to offer any help from all these thousands of miles away. It was a typically beautiful Southern California day when I emerged from my apartment and returned to campus. The sight of all the smiling young people, students, going about their business as usual, seemingly without a care, struck me as tragic. I felt alone, like the weight of the world was on my shoulders. It was in that moment that I realized how everyone around me was unaffected by this serious, devastating incident in St. Lucia. The news hadn’t made any ripples in America because a small island like St. Lucia does not get a lot of attention in the international media.
It was then that I decided to do whatever was within my power to help. Because I couldn’t afford to send food, water or money home, I approached Patrick Fuery, the Chair of Chapman University’s English Department about the possibility of hosting a fundraiser. Dr. Fuery’s reaction was positive and encouraging, and as a result, the fundraiser, Poetry, Music, Art: A Celebration to Benefit St. Lucia, is scheduled for April 5th at Chapman University. I am therefore extremely thankful Dr. Fuery and the English department, Catherine Keefe, a Chapman alum, and editor of dirtcakes, for sponsoring the poetry contest, Dr. Anna Leahy of Tabula Poetica, for being my mentor and working with me on planning this event. To Lynne Thompson, thank you for agreeing to read your poetry. Donna Grandin, much love for your donation and photographers Chester Williams and Bill Mortley, and Stephen Paul, thanks for allowing me to share your images. My sincere thanks to poets, Kendel Hippolyte, Jane King Hippolyte and Travis Weekes. It feels good to know there are people willing to lend a hand.